Art Has Its Own Memes

Throughout history, text and repetition play an essential role in art. Whether an artist directly involves text in their work, imposes text onto an image, or repeats the same images and text in different contexts — the essential premises of the “meme” — it’s all a part of the same tradition.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of the meme-iest artists and artworks, from Dada to Damien, for your consumption.

Of course, first up is a painting that itself has spawned countless meme’d iterations, the infamous Magritte …


René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images


Pepe the Frog

Pepe the Frog





Dat Boi

Dat Boi


British contemporary artist David Shrigley’s work often consists of sketched, one-panel comic-esque vignettes. His work can be directly paralleled to several memes:


David Shrigley, original drawing for Sketch London

David Shrigley, original drawing for Sketch London


Everything is Fine Dog

“Everything is Fine” dog


From The Essential David Shrigley

From The Essential David Shrigley


Bob Dylan holding signs meme

Bob Dylan holding signs




One of David Shrigley’s Venn Diagrams


Venn Diagram Meme

Venn Diagram Meme




Some artists, like Jenny Holzer, use text as their primary medium. She repeats the same words over and over, but against a different backdrop each time: Holzer’s Truisms have been projected, engraved, screenprinted, typeset, and more, making her process not dissimilar to that of the meme’s. Her statements span the mundane, the political, the devastating, and the humorous:


From Jenny Holzer's Projections

From Jenny Holzer’s Projections


From Jenny Holzer's Truisms

From Jenny Holzer’s Truisms


From Jenny Holzer's Truisms

From Jenny Holzer’s Truisms 




Pop artist Ed Ruscha cites comics, typography, book design, and advertisements among his inspirations. His works both feature text, and combine text and images:



Ed Ruscha, I Don’t Want No Retro Spective, 1979



Ed Ruscha, Happy Mess, 2006



Ed Ruscha, Uh Oh, 2012




The bulk of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s work features black-and-white images overlaid with text in white-on-red Futura Bold Oblique or Helvetica Ultra Condensed:



Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 1983



Barbara Kruger, Don’t be a Jerk, 1996



Richard Prince often turns preexisting text and images, as in his Joke series, into paintings and other media:


Richard Prince, I Understand Your Husband Drowned, 1989




The Guerrilla Girls, everyone’s favorite cultural watchdogs (watch Guerrillas?), coopt spaces and styles typically reserved for advertising — like billboards — to call out the art world (and beyond). The Guerrilla Girls’ work is inherently meme-like, not just due to their use of text over image, but also because they constantly revisit their old works as a means of emphasizing their critique.



Guerrilla Girls, Poster, 1989




Guerrilla Girls, Poster, 2014



Guerrilla Girls, Anniversary Poster, 1985 & 2015




John Baldessari has been known to couple text and image (or even just text and the canvas):



John Baldessari, Pencil Story, 1971-72



John Baldessari, What is Painting, 1968




And London-based muralist Lakwena Maciver, who displays her art publicly on the streets, pairs sweeping maxims with explosively colorful abstract designs:


Lakwena Maciver, Be Bad Until You’re Good, 2015



Lakwena Maciver, Power, Memories, Stories, 2014



Lawkwena Maciver, The Power of Girl, 2014




BONUS: Of course, no post on the “meme” in art history would be complete without one of the art world’s original trolls, Marcel Duchamp.


Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919



Marcel Duchamp, Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy, 1921


So, the next time someone tries to send you one of these…

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Just hit ’em with the link to this post, and let ’em know that art history has its OWN memes, thank you very much.